At 10 PM on Sunday night, after the sanctuary is dark and empty, I am often physically and emotionally fatigued from imparting my soul to others (1 Thess. 2:8). The more involved a Christian becomes in the work of the ministry, the less restful his or her Sabbath appears to be. This is especially true of pastors, teachers, children’s workers, and other ministry helpers. Can busy Christians have a restful Sabbath? That depends on our understanding of Sabbath rest.
The Nature of Sabbath Rest
The Hebrew word shabbat means to cease, to end, and to rest. Taking Sabbath certainly includes ceasing from routine labor and business. But if we think about Sabbath rest as something merely physical, we are missing the riches of shabbat.
We are called to rest because “on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done” (Gen. 2:2). Does this surprise you, or “have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary” (Isa. 40:28). God can help the weak because he never grows weak. When God rested on the seventh day, it was not to recuperate. After all, Jesus revealed that “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (Jn. 5:17). God is always working as he sustains and preserves the universe moment-by-moment. He “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3), even on the Sabbath.
Some say that the Lord only rested in the sense that he ceased from his work of creation to set an example for man. But Exodus 31:17 suggests otherwise: “the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed” (Ex. 31:17). When God rested, he did not merely cease from his work of creation; he rested to be refreshed, which is to metaphorically say that God set aside a day to be satisfied in the enjoyment of his good creation. On the seventh day, God freely chose to delight in the world that he had made.
Sabbath rest is ceasing from the sound and fury of life long enough to feel the relief of our repose upon the Everlasting Arms.
Sabbath rest is whole-person rest. Setting aside routine labor makes it possible for us to assemble with God’s people for spiritual refreshment through worship, prayer, and preaching. We cannot find abundant life apart from sharing with others in the satisfaction of the Very Good Creator who is incomparably better than his very good creation. Our Sabbath rest is primarily in God; it is a ceasing from the sound and fury of life long enough to feel the relief of our repose upon the Everlasting Arms.
The Need for Spiritual Refreshment
We need Sabbath rest. We are weak, frail, and easily distracted. In a world where phones ding for our constant attention, God gives us permission simply to enjoy him. Jesus taught that “the Sabbath was made for man” (Mk. 2:27), a day of rest for restless people. John Wesley’s Sunday morning prayer captures the spirit of shabbat:
Glory be to you, O holy undivided trinity, for jointly concurring in the great work of our redemption, and restoring us again to the glorious liberty of the sons of God. Glory be to you, who in compassion to human weakness, not capable of an uninterrupted contemplation of you, have appointed a solemn day for the remembrance of your inestimable benefits. O let me ever esteem it my privilege and happiness to have a day set apart for the concerns of my soul, a day free from distractions, disengaged from the world, wherein I have nothing to do but to praise and to love you. O let it ever be to me a day sacred to divine love, a day of heavenly rest and refreshment. (emphasis mine)
Being disengaged from mundane affairs, we are free to do nothing but praise and love the triune God. This spiritual worship is what marks the Sabbath as “a day of heavenly rest and refreshment.” While a ministry worker may be responsible for organizing and leading the assembly in this praise, worship, and adoration, he may still experience spiritual refreshment as a member of the body.
This is not to say that physical or emotional rest are unimportant. Busy Christians must find other ways to recuperate their bodies. Some pastors set aside time on Monday for physical rest. It is improper, however, to call this “my real Sabbath,” or to say that full-time ministers do not have a true Sunday Sabbath.
Since God deals with us as whole persons, we must take a holistic approach to cultivating a restful Sabbath. But even as we look for ways to simplify our schedules, we should be hesitant to cut back on spiritual activities.
The Lord’s Day is a call to attend to the means of grace. Through the preaching of the word and the receiving of the sacrament, we receive needed grace to refresh our inner man.
Countless churches have shortened their worship services or discontinued the Sunday evening service to encourage their members to get more rest or spend more time with their families. This cutting back on worship time is a departure from the classic, Christian understanding of Sabbath—not to mention that most spend their freed hours engrossed in a screen. The Lord’s Day is a call to attend to the means of grace. Through the preaching of the word and the receiving of the sacrament, we receive needed grace to refresh our inner man. God’s word is the source of our health; we need to hear more of God’s word, not less. Since early in the church’s history (possibly from the very beginning), this has included a second meeting on Sunday evenings.
Sabbath rest is not only required, it is necessary. Neglecting to assemble is sinful and spiritually disastrous (Heb. 10:25). There is no longer a national death penalty for Sabbath breaking, but neglecting the Sabbath kills the soul. Cutting oneself off from the communion of the saints is as deadly as being cut off from the land of the living. Old or New Testament, the leave of Sabbath leads to death. Thankfully, our gracious heavenly Father has made a provision for us to be strengthened through the weekly gathering.
Cultivating a More Restful Sabbath
Our experience of rest each week often corresponds to the intentionality of our focus on the Lord of the Sabbath. Here are a few suggestions for cultivating a more restful Sabbath:
Start by waking up early enough to pray, read, and (if possible) attend the prelude to morning worship. Many families arrive at church five or ten minutes before the service begins because they choose to snooze the alarm five or ten times before getting out of bed. Experiencing a restful Sabbath may actually begin with less sleep: waking early enough to arrive at church in time to meditate on Christ during the prelude and relax one’s spirit in God’s presence. Recently, I attended a Presbyterian service with a well-organized prelude time where the entire congregation sat in silence and began to meditate on a selection of hymns. After a few minutes of beautiful organ music and contemplation on the Scriptures open in my lap, I felt at ease and ready to worship.
Even when you are weary, attend the Sunday evening service. That is not to say that you can never miss a Sunday evening service. But busy Christians are usually busiest on Sunday mornings. If you were required to tame ten tiny tikes during morning worship, you may be tired and tempted to sleep through your alarm for Sunday evening service. But Sunday evening may be your best opportunity to experience the refreshing worship that your soul was made for. Evening services tend to be more relaxed and intimate. Since a local church in my community stopped having Sunday evening services, one of their couples now attends our service. The man regularly remarks, “This is our oasis each week.” They are refreshed by ending their Sabbath and beginning their week with word-centered family worship.
Throughout the day, cultivate a serene atmosphere. Sabbath is for public assembly as well as private dwelling (Lev. 23:3). Put away electronics (I need this reminder) and linger long over a hard copy of Scripture. Sit quietly and practice the art of silence. Listen to beautiful music. Take a walk. Pick some flowers. My father once remarked that as a child he was not permitted to play loudly on the Sabbath. To some, this smacks of legalism. But there may be wisdom in this restriction: children should learn from a young age that the Lord’s Day is a holy time, set apart for peace, rest, quiet, and refreshment. That is not to say that there is no room for fun. Eugene Peterson was right that we need to make room for praying and playing. But playing must never distract from or supersede praying.
No matter how busy your Sunday schedule, learn to possess yourself in peace. Refuse to be consumed with anxiety over the duties of the day. Sabbath is an important time to remember Isaiah 26:3-4: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.” Possessing oneself in peace is only possible as one walks in the Spirit of peace. This is a way of life that I am trying to cultivate. In my zeal to work for the kingdom, I often forget to simply relax and enjoy the wonderful works of God.
Sabbath should be a way of life. In our zeal to work for the kingdom, we often forget to simply relax and enjoy the wonderful works of God.
Pastors are especially responsible for cultivating Sabbath rest in their churches. Ministers should limit distractions from true worship. A string of event announcements mid-service tends to draw the attention of the church cook away from restful satisfaction in God and onto her green bean casserole. Pastors are also responsible to ensure that the entire church staff has a break. If possible, Sunday school teachers should be relieved from time to time. By modeling and preaching on Sabbath, pastors can help their congregations to understand God’s provision so that they are more grateful and intentional in their practice of Sabbath.
God has given us permission to set aside the cares of life and join him in being satisfied in the enjoyment of his goodness and glory. The abundant, resurrection life of the Lord whom we worship is available to all who believe: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). Let us hasten to appropriate this rest as we draw ever closer to our eternal Sabbath.